Former NFL Players Discuss Growth, Teamwork and Overcoming Racism at Zions Bank Panel

“Exploring the Intersection of Race, Sports and Economic Inclusion” featured insights from Lorenzo Alexander, Haloti Ngata and Steve Smith.

Kallee Feuz Mar 4, 2021

Three former NFL football players joined Zions Bank for a conversation on race, sports and economic inclusion on Thursday, Feb 25.

Participating in the virtual panel discussion were Lorenzo Alexander (Buffalo Bills, retired 2020), Haloti Ngata (Baltimore Ravens, retired 2019) and Steve Smith (North Carolina Panthers, retired 2017), who spoke to Zions Bank employees in Utah and Idaho via Zoom.

The football stars shared personal stories and life lessons on and off the football field. 

“Sports are a unique space where social, cultural and racial barriers are being broken down every day,” said Sui Lang L. Panoke, senior vice president of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Zions Bank. “There are numerous lessons to be learned in the world of sports.”

Panoke organized the virtual panel as part of the bank’s Power Speaker Series. Following are excerpts from the conversation.

On Growing Up

Growing up in Salt Lake City, Haloti Ngata learned the values of hard work, discipline, and sacrifice from his parents. Ngata remembers his father working three or four jobs at a time, while his mom worked in the home, dedicated to education and community service.

Tragically, Ngata’s father passed away when he was a freshman at the University of Oregon. And shortly after he declared for the NFL draft, his mom died of a heart attack.

“I try to make them proud and continue to live their legacy through me,” Ngata said.

As a youth in the inner city of Los Angeles, Steve Smith was surrounded by a collection of races and cultures: Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Indian and Nigerian.

“My folks were hardworking hourly wage workers who taught me that we work for what we should get,” Smith said. “If you didn’t work hard enough you don’t deserve it. Hard work is what I thrive on.”

Lorenzo Alexander remembers Oakland, Calif. in the 1980s as a melting pot full of diversity, talent and potential. But social issues like the crack cocaine epidemic and gang violence often thwarted that potential.

“My mom was a single parent trying to raise a black boy in Oakland,” he said.  “I was able to come up because of my uncle stepping up teaching me discipline, accountability and hard work.”

On Cultivating Talent and High-Performing Teams

Steve Smith: “The record may indicate that you’re a well-oiled machine, but sometimes, some of the worst seasons have been some of the best seasons personally for growth for myself and also for my teammates.”

“The latter end of my career is really where I learned the most because I had grown as a man but I also grew as a professional,” he said. “My approach was totally different from the young gun who would just roll out of bed. I knew there was a process to accomplish success.”

Lorenzo Alexander: “One year we were 16-10, but that year was just as fun as when we were 13-3 because it was focused on relationships. It’s all about the relationships, not just focusing on trying to get the ‘w” … that’s not what you remember; it’s the people and the relationships.”

Haloti Ngata: “The relationships are amazing, the thing that’s most amazing to me. We come from all walks of life and different areas. To accomplish winning a Super Bowl was just amazing; it’s always been a childhood dream of mine.”

“In 2012, the year before (the Super Bowl win) was the best team I was on; we just had everything. That year felt like it was ‘the year,’ the way we were clicking in the locker room, inside the facility and outside the facility, having each other’s backs. It was an amazing team experience.”

On Developing a Strong Physical and Mental Game

During this football career, Smith worked with a sports psychologist to create goals: lifetime goals, intermediate goals, and 5-year and 10-year goals. As part of this goal setting, he learned to find the “why” behind what he was doing.

“In understanding what I’m doing professionally or business wise, what’s my ‘why’? And is whatever I’m doing, is this helping me get to that, or is this distracting me and taking me away from my goal?” Smith said.

When Alexander’s Washington teammate Sean Taylor died in 2007, it caused him to reexamine his life.

“It made me look at my life, my purpose,” he said.  “Up until that point, it was primarily about me. As I started to give my life to (Jesus) Christ and really understand who I was, that’s when I was really able to let go. It was about serving other people.”

For Haloti Ngata, becoming a father in the third year of his NFL career helped sharpen his focus.

“I had to get down to business to provide for my family,” he said. “I had to condition myself, to be more disciplined, do the hard work.”

That meant taking better care of his body and becoming a better student of the game, studying hours of film.

On Experiencing Racism

I was a bridge to bring the guys together. I felt a lot of times in locker rooms, I was almost like the camaraderie guy,” Ngata said.

“People want to be understood and heard; that’s what most guys in the African-American population need,” Alexander said. “I don’t need you to feel my pain; but I at least want you to say that it’s an issue and ask, ‘How can I support you in getting these things changed because we’re humans first?”

“Eliminate the limiting of people based on their outer appearance of race,” said Smith. “That’s where the conversation stops being a conversation and we start to remove the barriers.”

During the 90-minute panel, Alexander, Ngata and Smith also spoke about the importance of building economic inclusion by seeking out and supporting diverse businesses and being intentional with the types of businesses they support.

Kallee Feuz is a Public Relations officer with Zions Bank.

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